Jacinda Mack says the Mount Polley mine disaster has opened up opportunities for First Nations involvement in developing safer mining practices and policies in BC. She’s been travelling the province talking about her role on the disaster response team and speaks in Nelson on Wednesday at the Nelson United Church at 7 p.m.
Mack was born and raised in the Northern Secwepemc community of Xat’sull (also known as Soda Creek, near Mount Polley). She is the Northern Shuswap Tribal Council mining coordinator, and worked previously as the Xat’sull natural resources manager.
In an interview, Mack talked about her response to the Mount Polley disaster with an interesting mix of dire warning and positive attitude.
“This is heart work for us. This is a labour of love,” she said.
She has helped to develop a new decision-making group “that puts our chiefs at the same table with the minister of the environment and the minister of mines. This is new; we have not had this before.”
She says it means First Nations have a real partnership with the mining company and the government in dealing with the aftermath of the disaster.
“It is a completely different approach. Before, we would just get a letter and it would say, ‘Hey this is what we are doing. If you have a problem with it, you have 20 days to respond and if we don’t hear from you we will assume you give your full consent.’”
On August 14, a breach of the tailings containment at the Mount Polley mine in the Cariboo released millions of cubic metres of water and slurry into Polley Lake. The mud and debris overwhelmed Hazeltine Creek and continued into Quesnel Lake. It’s been called one of the biggest environmental disasters in Canadian history.
Mack says the new relationship between First Nations, government, and the mining company includes a written commitment by the province to explore mining reform in BC.
“This is something we have been banging down different ministries’ doors about for 20 years, and now we achieved it in just two months after the spill.”
Another new direction she is proud of is the Northern Secwepemc te Qelmucw mining policy. Mack says it contains world-leading best practices in mining, and has already been downloaded 2,000 times all over the world. She says it was developed by leading experts in the field and is “mining policy from a human rights perspective.”
“It is about how we want mining to happen in our territory and then ripple out to the rest of the world. You have to realize that BC is the flagship of mining on the planet. So what we do here ripples out into the world. When the independent panel report on the Mount Polley spill came out, the recommendations in the report are already being legislated into different laws around the world.”
Mack says she is also encouraged by the province’s commitment to implement all of the recommendations of the government-appointed independent panel.
“I hear people say, ‘Oh they have done nothing, they have cleaned up nothing.’ That is not true. I want people to know what they have been doing. It has been about containment and emergency response so far.”
Mack says there are many urgent, unanswered questions.
“How it will affect water in the long term? What is the uptake [of pollutants] going to be in the ecosystem? What is the effect on salmon? The Quesnel Lake watershed is a nursery for salmon. What are the long term effects on human health? People don’t want to drink that water any more, people who live out there.”
She says there are long term social issues too.
“What is going to happen with this mine? Are they going to walk away? What about the people who depend on it? What about the people of Likely? Their economy has tanked and there has been no government assistance to them at all. So we are working closely with the people of Likely because they are our neighbours.”
Mack speaks excitedly about being involved in this work.
“I call it a love story. It is the fruition of people’s dedication and commitment and passion to making mining safer. After Mount Polley, mining is on people’s radar. People want to know. They are asking questions.”
Sharing the bill at Wednesday’s event will be Marilyn Burgoon of the Slocan Valley, who has recently filed a private prosecution against Executive Flight Centre following the company’s spill of jet fuel into Lemon Creek in the summer of 2013. She says water is the connection between her presentation and Jacinda Mack’s.
“It is the water itself and the degradation done by spills and the unwillingness of governments to hold polluters accountable,” Burgoon said. “It is left up to First Nations or individual citizens to lay charges. Otherwise there are no voices for the creatures and the fish and the forests.”
Mack’s tour of the province is sponsored by the Human Rights and International Solidarity Committee of the Federation of Post Secondary Educators of BC.